Almost anything can be bought and sold, yet there are many things we would rather give and be given. (More)

Markets and Morals, Part I: Gifts, Duties, and Incentives

This week Morning Feature considers the recent Boston Review Forum on markets and morality. Today we begin with Michael Sandel’s essay on the moral limits of markets. Tomorrow we’ll examine rebuttals by Matt Welch, Herbert Gintis, and John Tomasi. Saturday we’ll conclude with essays on social value and inequality.

Michael Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College at the University of Oxford and written several books, including What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

To the Happy Couple….

It was a lovely wedding, and an expensive one. Add up the bridal gown, the hall, the cake, the food, the flowers, the photographer, and other costs, and an average wedding now costs $27,000. In a large metropolitan area, the clergy or other official typically charges about $250 to perform the ceremony. And don’t forget the traditional wedding toast:

Whether you’re looking for a best man toast, a maid of honor toast or any other type of wedding toasts, you’ve come to the right place. We are the original toast writing service, providing memorable wedding toasts since 1997. We offer custom wedding toasts for the bride, groom, best man, groomsmen, maid of honor, bridesmaid, mother of the bride or groom and father of the bride or groom.

Just answer a few questions in an online form, and the folks at Perfect Toast will write your three- to five-minute tribute to the happy couple. For $150. And to Dr. Sandel, that feels … wrong:

Suppose, on your wedding day, your best man delivers a heartwarming toast, a speech so moving it brings tears to your eyes. You later learn that he bought it online. Would you care? Would the toast mean less than it did at first, before you knew it was written by a paid professional? For most of us, it probably would.

Although a bought toast might “work” in the sense of achieving its desired effect, that effect might depend on an element of deception. That’s a reason to suspect it’s a corrupt version of the real thing. So a wedding toast is a good that can, in a sense, be bought. But buying and selling it changes its character and diminishes its value.

Yet should it? The officiant was paid, as were the musicians, the dressmaker, and the baker. We imagine a wedding toast as a verbal gift, but most wedding gifts are bought in stores. Is the money the issue, or would a toast also feel less meaningful if it came from a website with free wedding speeches?

Two Objections to Markets

Dr. Sandel argues that the question of what we’re willing to buy and sell “is about how we want to live together,” and he poses two objections to markets:

These two kinds of arguments reverberate through debates about what money should and should not buy. The fairness objection asks about the inequality that market choices may reflect; the corruption objection asks about the attitudes and norms that market relations may damage or dissolve.

It’s worth taking a moment to clarify these two arguments for the moral limits of markets. The fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity. According to this objection, market exchanges are not always as voluntary as market enthusiasts suggest. A peasant may agree to sell his kidney or cornea to feed his starving family, but his agreement may not really be voluntary. He may be unfairly coerced, in effect, by the necessities of his situation.

The corruption objection is different. It points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices. According to this objection, certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold. The argument cannot be met by establishing fair bargaining conditions. It applies under conditions of equality and inequality alike.

If you shared Dr. Sandel’s unease with a paid-for toast, that probably was not about fairness: that couples whose friends could afford $150 would hear better toasts than those whose friends had to write their own. Rather, your unease was about corruption. Rather than an expression of shared history and affection, a paid-for toast feels like a verbal greeting card. The words are pretty, but they’re not personal.

Organs for Sale

Dr. Sandel also discusses whether we should be able to sell and buy transplant organs. It’s not merely an academic question, as the Guardian reported from Iran:

Would-be sellers advertise their kidneys by writing their blood type and phone number on posters or walls of the street close to several of Tehran’s major hospitals.

“Attention, Attention, Kidney for sale. 30 years old, healthy,” reads one ad, carrying the donor’s blood type, AB+, and a mobile number, with a note suggesting the donor is open to negotiate over the price.

In the U.S., the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 forbids buying or selling human organs for transplant. Yet blood donors can be paid or offered incentives, and body parts can be sold for research, education, and some other commercial purposes. I donate blood regularly and the blood bank here often offers t-shirts, vouchers for movie tickets, and/or other incentives. I accept and wear the t-shirts, and almost never go to the movies unless I have a free voucher from the blood bank. On the other hand, I don’t look in my closet and think “I need a new t-shirt” or look at the movie listings and think “I’d like to see that; it’s time to give blood again.” For me, donating blood is a gift born of civic duty.

But would my blood be any less worthwhile to the recipient if I had sold it? If I were paid for my blood, would I be more generous in some other area of my life?

Is Altruism a Scarce Resource?

A core question, Dr. Sandel argues, is whether altruism – kindness, generosity, and civic duty – is itself a scarce resource. He quotes a 2003 speech by economist and then Harvard University President Lawrence Summers:

We all have only so much altruism in us. Economists like me think of altruism as a valuable and rare good that needs conserving. Far better to conserve it by designing a system in which people’s wants will be satisfied by individuals being selfish, and saving that altruism for our families, our friends, and the many social problems in this world that markets cannot solve.

Dr. Sandel disagrees, concluding:

This economistic view of virtue fuels the faith in markets and propels their reach into places they don’t belong. But the metaphor is misleading. Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously.

British writer, producer, and photojournalist David Campbell reviewed academic articles and public records of charitable giving and concluded that “compassion fatigue” is a myth. He makes a compelling argument that the notion of altruism as a scarce resource is more often invoked to preempt attention from events that someone would rather ignore anyway.

Would we become more moral in a society that expected more generosity? Or did markets emerge to help surmount the inherent limits of our altruism … and in so doing benefit even those whom markets exclude? We’ll explore that thesis tomorrow.


Happy Thursday!